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March 7, 2010
On the Beat
Cole Hamels tried to think of the right word to describe the Phillies as he reflected on their recent past and looked ahead to their future. Finally, a visitor to his locker in the defending National League champion's spring training clubhouse offered some help.
"Is the word you're looking for 'dynasty'?"
"Yep, that's the word," the left-hander said. "I think we can become a dynasty. If you think about what we've accomplished and what we're set up to do this year and the years after that, we have the opportunity to be a dynasty. People say the Yankees could be a dynasty, and they might be right, but I think we're in as good of shape as any franchise in baseball. We have as much talent as anyone and, even though we've traded a bunch of good prospects in the last year, we've got guys in our farm system than rank with any other team's prospects."
Dynasty is a big word to use for any franchise if for no other reason than is it hard to exactly define the term. The Yankees won four World Series in a five-year span from 1996-2000, and that is generally considered baseball's last dynasty. The Braves made a record 14 consecutive post-season appearances from 1991-2005 but won only one World Series, causing much debate about whether they were truly dynastic.
However, the Phillies have a good start on building the résumé of a dynasty. They have won three consecutive NL East titles, two straight NL pennants, and the World Series in 2008 when they beat the Rays. The Phillies are the favorites to win the NL East again this season and have a core group of players in their prime with contract situations that should allow the franchise to remain competitive well into the second decade of the new millennium.
Right fielder Jayson Werth is the only regular not under contractual control through next season. Left fielder Raul Ibanez (37) and third baseman Placido Polanco (34), Ruben Amaro's two big free-agent signings in his first two offseasons as the Phillies' general manager, are the only regulars over 31.
The top three starting pitchers are under club control through 2012, and none are hardly ready for the baseball graveyard as Roy Halladay is 32, Joe Blanton is 29, and Hamels is 25. Closer Brad Lidge and set-up man/closer safety net Ryan Madson are also signed through 2011.
"We'd like to feel we can be very competitive for a number of years to come," Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "We've worked very hard to get into this position and it's been the hard work of a number of different people. It isn't just me or Pat Gillick who have built this club. A lot of people have a hand in it, including a lot of people who work behind the scenes and have done an outstanding job without really being noticed."
Gillick retired as the GM following the Phillies' World Series victory in 2008 and Amaro, an assistant GM with the club for 10 years, was promoted over another highly regarded assistant GM in Mike Arbuckle. Amaro certainly has made his mark as overshadowing the free-agent signings of Ibanez and Polanco was trading for Indians left-hander Cliff Lee last July. Lee helped the Phillies get back to the World Series, where they lost to the Yankees in six games, then was flipped to the Mariners in a three-team trade in which the Phillies landed Halladay from the Blue Jays. Halladay then agreed to a below-market deal when he signed a three-year, $60-million contract extension that runs through 2014.
However, as Amaro said, the Phillies are an organizational effort. Scouting director Marti Wolever drafted such key players as first baseman Ryan Howard, second baseman Chase Utley, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, Hamels, and Madson. Arbuckle left the Phillies when he was passed over for the GM job, but the farm system is in good hands with Benny Looper and Chuck LaMar, and it remains fairly fertile despite Amaro giving up seven prospects in the trades for Lee and Halladay.
Not to be lost in this current Phillies' run is the commitment of ownership. The Phillies will begin the season with a $140-million payroll, quite a jump from $29 million in 1999. President Dave Montgomery has taken the revenue generated by the three million-plus fans who jam into Citizens Bank Park each season and reinvested it into the team.
"It's hard enough to draft and develop the type of All-Star players we have, and it's even harder to keep them all," Amaro said. "Usually, you have to pick and choose who you can keep, but our ownership has stepped up and signed every one of them. The fans have certainly done their part, too, by putting their butts in the seats night after night. We could not afford to have this kind of payroll without great support from the fans. It all works together hand-in-hand."
Amaro can appreciate the Phillies' success more than most as he is a Philadelphia guy. Ruben Amaro Sr., his father, was an infielder with the Phillies from 1960-65. The younger Amaro served as the batboy on the franchise's first World Series winner in 1980 and was a reserve outfielder when the Phillies won the NL pennant in 1993.
"For me, the greatest memory of us winning in 2008 was riding in the victory parade and just seeing the sheer joy on the faces of thousands and thousands of people," Amaro said. "It really hit me how much this meant to our fans and our city. It's what really drives me and all of us in the organization to try to keep winning. I'd love to be in another parade and see all those happy faces again."
By his nature, Cubs GM Jim Hendry is not a big statistics guy. His background is in scouting and coaching, not mathematics. However, Hendry admits that the Cubs are now more stat-savvy than ever and use sabermetrics to help in their decision-making.
"We've always done more than people thought," Hendry told the Chicago Tribune's Paul Sullivan. "We've always factored that in, but I'm always going to be a scouting guy first. You can skew statistics to frame it the way you like it. Some statistics that a lot of people think are always vital to making decisions, they should be a part of the equation, but not the be-all, end-all. You factor a lot of stuff in, not just 'Oh gee, that guy has a high or low on-base percentage.'"
Hendry's people skills are second to none, and he is one of the most popular GMs among his peers and the media. Not surprisingly, Hendry believes personality and character should factor into decisions, even more so after the signing of right fielder Milton Bradley as a free agent during the 2008-09 offseason turned out to be a fiasco. Thus, the Cubs' two major off-season free-agent signings were outfielders Marlon Byrd and Xavier Nady, both considered good clubhouse guys.
"When it comes to crunch time, believe me, all the (statistical) information has been processed," Hendry said. "But by the end of the day, I'm going to look at (special advisers) Kenny Kravec or Dave Littlefield or Gary Hughes, and say, 'This is what I think. What do you think?'"
The Cubs present a different challenge for statistical analysis, as they are the only major-league team that plays the majority of its home games during the day. Weather also plays a major factor in the day game at Wrigley Field, as the park plays big when the wind blows in off Lake Michigan but small when the wind is blowing out.
"With a smaller park, you would think that has something to do with (power numbers), but our park doesn't play as small as it used to, and by and large, most players are better on the home side," Cubs manager of baseball information Chuck Wasserstrom said. "You don't look at that as much, but you definitely pay attention to day versus night because of the amount of games we play during the day."
Basketball great Michael Jordan is in the process of buying the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, another legend, would like to follow suit and buy into a Major League Baseball franchise when his playing days end, saying, "It's definitely a goal of mine."
Those who know Jeter believe that not only will he own a major-league team some day but also that he will be very successful.
"The guy is capable of doing anything he puts his mind to as we've all seen over the years," Yankees catcher Jorge Posada said. "I could see him being an owner. If Derek is involved, the chances are very good the team would be a winner."
So why would Jeter want to own his own club?
"To get to call the shots," he said. "I'd like to implement what I've learned here, including discipline. I think that has to be first for any franchise to truly be successful. You have to formulate a plan and stick to it."
Wally Backman has finally made it back to organized baseball more than five years after he was hired by the Diamondbacks to be their manger after 2004 season, then had the contract voided when it was learned that he had past arrests for domestic violence and driving under the influence. Since then, Backman had been banished to managing in independent leagues until the Mets hired him to manage their short-season Brooklyn farm club this season.
"It has been a frustrating five years," Backman said. "I kept talking to organizations and they kept telling me I was overqualified to manage in the minor leagues? How can you be overqualified? I think teams would want someone supposedly overqualified to help teach and develop their players and also win games."
Backman admits that he was stung for a long time by the Diamondbacks' decision to pass on him and instead hire Bob Melvin, especially when it came to the light that the domestic violence charges were unfounded and dropped. However, he has had no choice but to be patient.
"I made a mistake with a DUI, a really stupid mistake, but it was six years ago and I think I should be forgiven for it," Backman said. "I can't hold a grudge, though. I just have to move on. The Mets have given me my career back and now it's up to me to prove myself again because my goal is still to manage in the major leagues."
MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The White Sox have been gearing up to try to trade for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, either at the July 31 non-waiver deadline or in the offseason, even before right-hander Jake Peavy started lobbying GM Ken Williams to deal for his ex-teammate. Tampa Bay and Florida continue to have interest in free-agent corner infielder Hank Blalock. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon says his emphasis this spring is working on his other pitches, as he became too dependent on fastballs last season, never more obvious than when he threw 16 in a row while blowing the save in Game Three of the Angels' sweep in the ALDS. It turns out that left fielder Manny Ramirez's surprising decision to travel with a Dodgers' split-squad to Taiwan for exhibition games against a local all-star team from March 12-14 isn't about promoting Major League Baseball, but about about increasing his marketing deals in that country. While Adam Lind figures to be the Blue Jays' primary designated hitter, manager Cito Gaston says he wants to find at-bats for Randy Ruiz.
Indians manager Manny Acta has settled the debate on whether center fielder Grady Sizemore should bat leadoff or third by splitting the difference and hitting him in the two hole. Left-handed reliever Zach Braddock, who finished last season at Double-A Huntsville, has been the talk of the Brewers' camp. Braves GM Frank Wren is noncommittal about the seemingly growing possibility of rookie Jason Heyward beginning the season as the starting right fielder: "He's the best prospect in baseball and if he's ready to play in the major leagues is something to know in about four weeks." Nationals GM Mike Rizzo believes Stephen Strasburg is well-equipped to handle the hype of being one of the most touted pitching prospect of recent vintages: "He's got a very even-keeled demeanor and he's been well-educated in preparing for the media exposure he is going to get." Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd feels Ubaldo Jimenez could blossom into an ace this season: "When you throw a fastball 96-98 mph and have four plus pitches, you've got a pretty good chance to be a No. 1 but, I think it will happen on his time frame rather than our time frame."